Okay For Everyone by Shelley Johannes
Most of my personal epiphanies have come while reading fiction—while I’m fully immersed in a book with my guard down. This past Sunday was a first for me though. In just ten minutes and sixteen seconds, before I was even fully awake, a podcast leveled me.
I was in prime position to be unraveled by this specific conversation because I’d been having a one-sided argument with this person since the beginning of the year.
On New Year’s Day I kicked off my reading year with Gary D. Schmidt’s Orbiting Jupiter, a book that was both beautiful and heartbreaking. It rekindled all my love for Gary D. Schmidt’s The Wednesday Wars and made me wonder why I never read Okay for Now, the follow-up novel. I don’t know what I was reading back in 2011, but clearly, I should have been reading Okay for Now.
On January 3rd I remedied my past mistakes and picked it up. I immediately fell hard, thinking words like genius and masterpiece. His use of Audubon’s artwork, both structurally and metaphorically, will make me happy for ever and ever I think.
On the off chance that any of you, like me, somehow missed this book along the way, it centers on almost-eighth-grader Doug Swieteck. Gary Schmidt first introduced us to Doug in The Wednesday Wars with the words, “If it had been Doug Swieteck that Mrs. Baker hated, it would have made sense.”
If there’s a kind of story I love most, it’s redemption and perseverance. So when I learned in Okay for Now why Doug was the kid we met in The Wednesday Wars, when I saw his home life and his abusive alcoholic father, I was rooting for Doug to thrive.
In every small shift and triumph toward being okay, I rooted for Doug. I rooted for his brothers. I rooted for his mother. I rooted for them until, toward the end of the book, Doug’s horrible, horrible father had a moment of redemption himself. I threw down the book. I felt betrayed. I said emphatic things like, “That man would never change.”
As a reader, I didn’t come to the pages empty-handed. I came with intensely personal things. I came into that story with all that I am. And I needed Doug to be okay, even if—in fact, especially if—there were pieces of his world that could never be made okay.
For the last three weeks or so, I’ve been having a silent battle with Okay for Now. I left it face-up next to my bed and I’ve been throwing shade in its direction whenever I walk into the room.
All of that changed when I clicked play on last Sunday’s episode of The Yarn, featuring Gary D. Schmidt and his inspiration behind Orbiting Jupiter. I listened to Gary’s voice as he talked about Jamal and Jake and Joseph, the boys he met in a juvenile home a few years ago. I listened to his love-wrapped voice as he told about the men in a maximum-security prison who took him by surprise. I listened as he talked about the people we too easily throw away.
I often miss the obvious. As a reader, I think I had forgotten the obvious fact that, as a writer, Gary comes to the pages with all that he is too. Listening to him tell his story, I had a revelation.
Gary D. Schmidt is the kind of person who is rooting for everyone.
I wanted Doug to be okay, even when his home life was not. But Gary wanted something that never even occurred to me to want. He wanted Mr. Swieteck to be okay too.
I’m no longer fighting with the book at my bedside. Instead of side-eye, I’m wiping my tears. And I’m hoping my conversation with Okay for Now will continue for months to come. After borrowing Gary’s eyes for a moment, I want those eyes too—the kind that look at Doug and Joseph, and especially at Mr. Swieteck, and see that all is not lost.
Shelley Johannes is the author|illustrator of the chapter book series Beatrice Zinker: Upside Down Thinker (Disney~Hyperion 2017). A stubborn optimist, Beatrice sees the world sunny side up. She is, perhaps, also on the long road to becoming stubbornly compassionate.